Refuseniks

WITH the summit getting closer, hope is rising, as always, among one special group of people for something good to come to them from Ronald Reagan's first intimate experience with the leaders of the Soviet state. There are many people who, for various reasons, would like to get permission to migrate from the Soviet Union to other places. We in the West call them ``refuseniks.''

For some, but probably not for many, the summit seems likely to be helpful. But it will only be because the Soviets of today, like their predecessors in czarist times, are sometimes willing to grant special favors in special cases to special people.

If the summit goes well in matters the Soviets consider important, meaning primarily arms control (as begins to seem possible), there will be informal and private meetings among high officials both during the summit and in subsequent meetings. At those private meetings it is possible to suggest that, for example, the Russian wife of some businessman or journalist who has left Russia be allowed to join her husband.

This has happened on occasions when East-West relations were relatively easy and there was a good deal of diplomatic activity. During the war years, when the United States and Britain were shipping vast quantities of war materials to Russia, such special concessions were made.

Edmund Stevens, for many years this newspaper's correspondent in Moscow, was a beneficiary. He was able to get a permanent exit and reentry visa for his Russian wife, but not while on duty for us. He went on leave of absence from us to work in the US Embassy in Moscow under Averell Harriman, then the US ambassador. A personal request by Mr. Harriman won the visa for Nina Stevens.

There were more such special occasions during the ``d'etente'' era, when Jewish emigration reached its postwar high of 51,000 in 1979.

But it needs to be noted that the granting of exit visas is a special consideration involving relaxation of Soviet laws and practices. It does not come in the form of recognizing a right of Soviet citizens to migrate to other places.

True, a right to travel is specified in the Helsinki documents. But those documents were not treaties. They were signed, yes, as a ``Final Act.'' So far as the Soviets were concerned, they were pious platitudes which, for them, had no concrete meaning.

The idea of the individual citizen having a vested right to come or go at will across the frontiers of his homeland exists in the West and is respected in most Western countries in peacetime. It disappears in wartime, even in the freest Western countries. In Russia, from time immemorial, such an idea has never existed. The Soviets have inherited from their czarist predecessors a body of law and practice and a bureaucracy which are unfamiliar with any such idea.

There is a powerful historical reason behind the absence of such a concept. The Russian state was put together by the czars by conquest. The Great Russian, the White Russian, and the Ukrainian peoples are together a bare majority of all the peoples held today within the frontiers of the Soviet Union.

Many of those three main ethnic groups are inside by conquest. Moreover, all the non-Slavs are inside by force, and much of it is recent. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were brought in by force after World War II. So, too, were small bits of Asia.

The Soviet Union could disintegrate if all its peoples were entirely free to come and go at will. To grant a general right to migrate could mean millions of people of non-Slavic origin rushing outside the country. To let many Jews out by right would encourage Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Germans, Kazakhs, Tatars, and many others to demand an equal right.

At the summit in Geneva this month, some quiet, private arrangements may be made which will allow, in time, some of the ``refuseniks'' to achieve their dream visas. But there will be no recognition by the Soviet Union of a general right of its people to travel at will.

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